chapter  13
Wittgenstein and Relativism
ByPaul O’Grady
Pages 23

To what extent is Wittgenstein a relativist? It certainly seems as if he is committed to strongly relativistic views in much of his later work. Yet commentators have disagreed on this, some readily identifying him as a relativist, others defending him against the charge. In this paper I’d like to diagnose the source of this disagreement as deriving from two ambiguities. The first is that relativism itself is a complex position, admitting of various positions significantly different from each other. The second is that Wittgenstein’s texts are themselves gnomic, pushing in different directions, aiding both the relativistic and anti-relativistic readings. Some of the more relativistic-sounding passages come out as non-relativistic under closer scrutiny. However, there are general features in his later thought, particularly the linked ideas of ‘language game’ and ‘form of life’, which obviously admit of relativistic interpretations. Nevertheless, I want to argue that the scope for relativism from these ideas is limited or mitigated by certain aspects of his thought, which I shall call his ‘naturalism’. I shall argue that a useful way of thinking about Wittgenstein on relativism is through the topic of the a priori. The account of the a priori which can be gleaned from his work allows for a certain amount of cognitive diversity, but is also constrained by features of our physical make-up which contingently place limits on the range of possible options available.